WASHINGTON — As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeks to move ahead with plans to begin annexing parts of the West Bank, possibly as soon as Wednesday, several leading GOP lawmakers are staying silent on the step that Democrats have rallied against and some Republicans have embraced.
While the Democratic Party has been increasingly unified in recent weeks in voicing opposition to the move, GOP lawmakers have taken a different approach: Either they have come out in favor of annexation— or have stayed silent on it.
Last week, a majority of Republican House members sent a letter to Netanyahu saying they stood behind his proposal to annex West Bank territory. “Israel has the right to make sovereign decisions independent of outside pressure,” the legislators wrote, offering “support for you as you make such decisions in your capacity as Israel’s democratically-elected prime minister.”
The letter was signed by 116 of the 198 Republicans in the House, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
At the same time, a number of Republican leaders and high-profile GOP senators have not yet taken a public stance.
The offices of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, Utah Senator Mitt Romney and Idaho Senator James Risch, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, all declined requests from The Times of Israel to weigh in on Netanyahu’s annexation plans.
That stands in sharp contrast to Democrats, whose leadership and rank and file have rallied against the prime minister’s hope to extend Israeli sovereignty to the settlements and the entire Jordan Valley, the roughly 30 percent of the West Bank allocated to Israel under the Trump plan, which theoretically envisions a Palestinian state in the remaining territory with land swaps.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and a plethora of other prominent and powerful Democrats in both the House and Senate have spoken out against the plan, saying it would hurt US and Israeli interests and undercut efforts for a two-state peace agreement.
On Thursday, 191 Democratic House members sent Netanyahu a letter imploring him to halt his plans. The missive, orchestrated by Florida Rep. Ted Deutch and Illinois Rep. Brad Schneider — two of the most pro-Israel Democrats in Congress — argued it would damage prospects for peace and Israel’s ties with America.
“As committed partners in supporting and protecting the special US-Israel relationship, we express our deep concern with the stated intention to move ahead with any unilateral annexation of West Bank territory,” it said. “We urge your government to reconsider plans to do so.”
That followed a similar letter to the Israel premier and Defense Minister Gantz in May from 19 Senate Democrats, as well as increased warnings from Arab leaders that annexation would destroy Israel’s hopes for normalizing relations with its neighbors.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II has said it would create a “massive conflict” in the Middle East and held a series of teleconferences with Congressional leaders two weeks ago urging them to block the move.
Former US Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, who worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations, argued that some GOP lawmakers may be opposed to unilateral annexation moves on principle but would rather stay out of the political fray surrounding the issue.
Romney, for instance, has spoken out against diminishing the chances of a two-state outcome. “I don’t know what the alternative is other than a two-state solution,” he said during a press conference with his Democratic Senate colleague Chris Murphy after visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories in May 2019.
Miller speculated that “there could be a concern and fear that any statement — let alone a group statement by several Republicans — would anger the White House and the president personally.”
What’s more, he added, Israel has become a more partisan issue on Capitol Hill over the last several years.
“I’d basically argue that Republicans don’t want to get into a fight with the White House 150 days before the election and they want to create as much division between Republicans and Democrats as they can on the Israel issue, basically claiming that they are the go-to party,” Miller told The Times of Israel.
Beyond the halls of Congress, the Democratic and Republican fault lines on annexation have also played out among liberal and conservative advocacy groups.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, for instance, has embraced Netanyahu’s annexation plan — and reportedly sought to shore up signatures on the GOP House letter sent to the Israeli premier last week.
“The RJC supports the decisions of the democratically elected government of Israel,” the organization said in a statement to The Times of Israel. “We stand with PM Netanyahu and his plans to best secure Israel through the application of sovereignty over Israeli lands.”
Meanwhile, the liberal Zionist group J Street has been leading a campaign to galvanize opposition to the move in Washington.
Dylan Williams, J Street’s senior vice president of government affairs, argued that Democratic resistance to annexation reflected the party’s commitment to the conventional American outlook that any kind of unilateral action from either side does not advance peace.
“There is essential unanimity among Democratic lawmakers against unilateral annexation,” he told The Times of Israel. “The overwhelming majority have now spoken out against it. Among Republicans you see either silence or egging on of a move that runs directly counter to US interests and decades of bipartisan policy.”
He added, “It couldn’t be clearer that Trump and Republican lawmakers have abandoned the longstanding consensus on US policy toward Israel and the Palestinians.”
While the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) hasn’t taken a public position on annexation, it has told members of Congress that it has no objection to them criticizing Netanyahu’s plans, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
The powerful pro-Israel lobby usually works assiduously to discourage any criticism of Israel, making the new stance all the more noteworthy.
Even so, no Republicans have yet come out against annexation.